14 December 2017

How Not to Collect and Edit an Anthology

by Brian Thornton

Two weeks ago I related the story of how an anthology which never got off the ground helped launch my fiction writing career. Since my initial foray into Anthology World I have gone on from my role of "contributor" to that of "collector/editor."


Although both projects involved the experience of collecting and editing the content for an anthology of short pieces, the two experiences could not have been more different. And not just because one anthology was nonfiction in nature and the other involved crime fiction.

In this week's entry, I'm going to deal with the first anthology, the one which taught me several valuable lessons about what not to do when editing an anthology.

My initial crack at editing an anthology came about in large part because of my day gig (I'm a teacher). This was also the case with the first book, I published, 101 Things You Didn't Know About Lincoln. In the case of the Lincoln book, I earned my MA partially in 19th century American history, and knew a fair bit about Lincoln. I'd networked with the acquisitions editor (we're both crime fiction writers), and she knew I was a trained historian. So she approached me about writing that book.

It turned out to be a terrific first experience, so when she approached me the following year about collecting and editing an anthology of "uplifting true stories about inspiring teachers," I thought, "What the heck?" The money was good, and I negotiated a healthy lead-time on the project in order to help ensure I'd have plenty of time to see the project through to completion.

It didn't turn out that way.

I beat the bushes looking for teachers/former students with great stories to tell, posted calls to submit all over the web. And I got a pretty fair number of responses.

What I hadn't taken into consideration was the fact that most of these people were not, in the strictest sense, writers.

There were several natural-born storytellers in the lot. Their work I barely touched. In a couple of cases I accepted the story as was. No suggested edits. Both of those writers were a pleasure to read from start to finish and are still friends to this day.

Then there were the rest of them.

I spent months going back and forth with several members of the original group of contributors whose work I'd agreed to publish. Some of them just couldn't polish their story enough to make the final cut. (And not for lack of trying!).

Part of the problem was that although I served as the collection editor, I didn't have final approval on the content. That lay with the editorial team at my publisher. I would accept changes to several of the stories in need of rewriting, and pass them along to my publisher's editorial team, only to receive them back with requests for more changes.

On top of that, I was also tasked with handling all contractual correspondence with contributors. This was before the days of e-signatures. I had to print up each individual contract, get it sent out in duplicate, ride herd on some of the contributors who were tardy getting their contracts back to me, all while teaching a full load, working on the anthology, and doing research for a different writing project I had negotiated with a different editor (same publisher), to commence just as soon as I wrapped up the anthology.


In fact there's one guy who sent back his signed contract copies, but who never got paid by the publisher because he moved without leaving a forwarding address. And then he never responded to any of the many follow-up emails I sent to him after his check and contributor's copies of the anthology came back to the publisher marked "Return to Sender."

when I eventually sent off the final draft of all thirty-three entries and had them all individually accepted by the publisher, I was pretty gassed. And not for nothing, but I was also a solid month behind on my next writing project.

And that second editor? Neither as professional nor as easy to work with as my friend who steered me toward writing the Lincoln book. Turned out I'd been spoiled in my initial foray into writing nonfiction for fun and profit.

The result? I wound  up writing eighty thousand words in eight weeks on a ridiculously tight deadline on that next project. And I did it during the months of September and October: the first two months of the school year. Not exactly a couple of months when teachers have a whole lot of extra time on their hands.

But hey, I got paid, and this was before I met my wife/got married/bought a house/had a kid, so it was more instructive than traumatic (at least in the long-term. Short-term? Well...).

Let me begin to wrap this object lesson up by pointing out that this all took place back in 2007. I like to think that I've put all of the following to good use in the years since.

So What did I learn?

1. That soliciting writing from amateurs opens you up to a whole lot of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting.

2. That collecting and editing an anthology is a shit-ton of work, and if you're going to undertake it, you should make damned sure that it's on a subject near and dear to your heart, and that you've got something close to final approval on what the content looks like.

3. That creative control is worth taking less money for.

4. Don't work with a publisher who makes you do all of the contract wrangling in an age before DocuSign.

5. That part and parcel of being a good editor is being a good listener.

And on that note Happy Holidays to all who celebrate them. See you in two weeks when I'll talk about at least one time when I definitely put these lessons to good use: when collecting and editing West Coast Crime Wave a few years later, in 2011!


  1. One of the lessons we learn by sitting on the editorial side--whether it's for an anthology or a periodical--is how many different ways writers make an editor's life difficult: sloppy manuscripts, missed deadlines, dropping off the radar at inappropriate times, and more. Experiencing these things from the editorial side makes us want to do a better job when we're on the creative side. (At least, it does for me.) The less grief we cause editors, the more likely they are to work with us again and to think of us when they have opportunities.

    And, as a contributor to the non-fiction anthology you so deftly fail to name, I had to look back in my files to which kind of writer I was back then. Let's just say I wasn't embarrassment by what I learned.

  2. Wow. Lessons learned indeed! I've only edited one anthology, but it was a great experience--not so much because of skill on my part as much as luck in avoiding so many of these troubles!

    Thanks for sharing the experience.

  3. Great post, Brian.

    Isn't it amazing what you learn the first time you do something, especially if a lot of things go wrong?

    I'm impressed by your 80K word output during school months, too. And I wrote my sixth year project (a later-published novel) during the school year, too...while taking another class that assigned a novel a week and working weekends as a photographer. That was nothing compared to you.

    If I ever edit an anthology (not likely in this lifetime), now I know enough mistakes to avoid that I'll have to come up with my own new ones.

    Michael makes a great point, too. The more we know about the process, the less grief we will give other editors...which makes it more likely that they'll want to work with us again.

  4. I'll remember all these points, Brian. BTW, if you ever need some anecdotes about Sam Houston or Charles Elliot, you know (ahem) I have a few...

  5. Extremely helpful, Brian. Thanks!

    Like Art, I have edited only one anthology, and really enjoyed the experience--mostly because of the talent and professionalism of the contributors (they included Bill Crider, Liz Zelvin, Deborah Elliott-Upton, Barb Goffman, Earl Staggs, Sandra Seamans, Herschel Cozine, etc.). Writers like those made the job a lot easier.

  6. Michael: Yep, that's exactly my feeling on it. I think editing a collection helped make me much more professional as a writer. And no, you were NOT one of the folks who needed extra herding on that anthology. You were one of the pros I held up as a model to others!

    Art: Ten years on I am incredibly grateful for this experience, as it definitely served as a confidence builder. Plus, it served to give me perspective when I next took on an anthology, so I was able to just enjoy the second experience to the fullest, rather than being distracted by the minor things that always pop up in these sorts of projects. I'll write more about that second experience in my next blog entry, on December 28th.

    Steve: That workload is mighty impressive, man! I absolutely recommend taking on an anthology, if you ever get the inclination. It can be an incredibly rewarding experience.

    As for my eighty thousand words in eight weeks, experience. Yeah. I didn't even go in to the fact that part of this writing project was to generate "sidebars": text laid out alongside the general text with bits of trivia, other odds and ends, etc., and that there was a particular coding system they wanted me to use in order to just get it straight to the publication department once it was done. So that eighty thousand words was even MORE work than it sounds like it was.

    On top of that, that second editor, as I mentioned, was not professional. She was young, both as an editor and chronologically. It was the only time during my long publishing career (well into its second decade now) that I ever had someone scream at me over the phone because of something related to my writing. I don't think I'm telling tales out of school when I say that this particular editor didn't last long at the company. Found out after she was shown the door that my experience (being brow-beaten at high decibels over the phone) was not exceptional. Apparently she did it a lot. Not a positive experience at all, but what was really weird about it was how completely unexpected it was. Up to the point where she lost it on me because I had missed one of her arbitrary (and I DO mean *arbitrary*) deadlines, we'd had a great working relationship. She was nice, funny, seemed to communicate well. Just bizarre.

    Eve: I NEED more anecdotes on BOTH! Eliot especially is playing a much expanded role in my final draft of the work-in-progress!! Let's talk!! Send send send!! You have my email address!!

    John: Ditto on the professionalism of so many of those you mentioned in your comment, and ESPECIALLY about Big Bill Cameron. His story "The Last Ship", which I featured in WEST COAST CRIME WAVE, is one of the best short stories I've ever read. AND he designed the cover!

  7. Brian, you and I have discussed some of the good editors and some of the not so good editors at that particular publisher, so I hear what you're saying.

    Best wishes on your next anthology project.


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